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  The politics of social partnership

Joe Craig

In her review of my book Prisoners of Social Partnership, Maeve Connaughton raises a number of criticisms which I hope readers of Red Banner will agree are worth debating further. The purpose of this contribution is not to take up all the faults she finds with the book—readers will be in a position to form a judgement by reading it for themselves—but to focus on what both of us clearly think are the central questions to be answered.
For Maeve the problem with the book is that it sets up an opposition between those who oppose social partnership in principle, a distinct minority, and the majority who oppose it only because it has not given them a bigger share of the fruits of their labour. She writes: “But how do people reach a position of opposing partnership in principle? Usually by opposing what’s in a particular partnership deal! One grows over into the other... Limiting opposition to those who are ideologically opposed will ensure that opposition doesn’t get very far.” Maeve will find no evidence in the book that I limit opposition in this way. I agree that opposition in principle will often come through opposition to partnership’s effects, but this can only be the start of the analysis, and was only the start of my own. Maeve’s review unfortunately does not bring us forward, but repeats the starting point while struggling to convince readers that the book ignores it.

Firstly I pointed to the phenomenon of certain groups of workers using favourable conditions to win demands outside the limitations imposed by partnership deals. It is not that I claim these struggles didn’t mean anything, as Maeve puts it, but they clearly didn’t bring down social partnership with all its effects. Clearly this needs an explanation. For me the explanation is quite evident. These workers did not defeat partnership because they didn’t set out to do so, and the bureaucracy never lost control over the movement as a whole. These struggles may have had more or less significance for the individual workers involved but politically, for the working class as a whole, the gains for some clearly meant next to nothing. These struggles never broke out of the sectionalism that imprisoned them. Clearly struggle, even if successful in its own terms, was, and is, not enough. The book argues that those workers who have opposed some of the restraints of partnership while seeking unconsciously or deliberately to ignore its overarching framework of control have failed to defeat it. Very large and militant struggles that have held wider implications for the whole class have suffered defeat despite their size and militancy because of this failure.

It was because of the central importance of the specific struggles of workers themselves to understanding both the nature of partnership and how it can be defeated that the book began with an examination of two very important struggles, including the nurses’ strike of 1999. It is because our programme can only grow out of struggle that I put it centre stage. Her charge that I place “little value on such everyday struggles” is therefore misplaced. What cries out for explanation in dealing with the nurses’ strike is why this very militant and popular struggle failed. One lesson I drew was the lack of rank and file structures to control and lead the strike. Maeve says this could only come out of resistance itself, but then she has no more to say about this process. That more needs to be said is obvious, since we have had the struggle—and the 1999 strike was not the start of the nurses’ dispute— but we are, to my knowledge, no further forward in creation of structures that could ensure such rank and file control of any future action. Someone actually has to argue that rank and file structures are necessary, and they can only be considered necessary because of a political analysis, which the book puts forward. Maeve’s own thoughts on bureaucracy are certainly not adequate to advance the case for rank and file control.

Maeve attempts to poke fun at my description of a return to militancy around pay as very “well and good” but lacking in appreciation of its importance to ordinary workers (and presumably more generally). She tells us that “Those few extra euros or pounds in your pocket do make a real difference. Maybe you can go on a holiday abroad this year... get the kids the things they need... things like the right to go to the toilet without raising your hand to ask permission are not to be sneezed at. None of these concessions bring the era of capitalist exploitation to an end, but they are very ‘well and good’, even if people don’t draw the lessons socialists would like them to.” The opposition of very concrete gains to the rather abstract formulation of capitalist exploitation is revealing, and really only makes sense if in some sense these gains are significant. But they are not. After all, what is capitalist exploitation but the denial of these things and much, much, much, much more? Unless one believes that capitalism can be reformed, any gains are inadequate, insecure and always liable to be taken away. If one accepts the argument of Luxemburg that we face a world characterised by socialism or barbarism, amply demonstrated in two world wars and more, then they really are “well and good”, but what is infinitely more important is that people do “draw the lessons socialists would like them to”.

She accuses me of an “all or nothing” strategy and asserts that I believe workers cannot get some redistribution of wealth from the bosses. This however would not withstand examination of the context of the remarks on multinationals that she uses to support her claims. I stated that: “The mobility of international capital and the dependency of the State on it for revenue places definite limits on the increased pay, conditions and social services that Irish workers can expect to enjoy so long as they accept the parameters set by multinational companies.” (Page 96.) So it is clear. There are limits on what workers can achieve, and if there were no such limits there would be no objective basis for socialism. Perhaps Maeve would claim that the battle for reforms can become, “grow over” to, a battle for revolution, and then we could agree. Except that we must further state that the goal of revolution must inform our strategy in the fight for reforms. At the end of the day, revolution will come about not as a by-product of a struggle for reforms, but because workers actually seek a revolutionary solution.

The book argues that social partnership is a political assault that can only be defeated by a political response. Can workers defeat partnership without confronting these arguments with their own alternative? Perhaps through sheer bloody-mindedness and militancy? Of course, it could not be excluded that some outrageous provocation could prompt such action but, besides being very unlikely, it would certainly not lead to any alternative but the imposition of another partnership framework in whatever form. It is certainly not a strategy that socialists could embrace. Instead we must fight for workers to develop their own political resources that can be set against those deployed by the bosses and their state. The book provides my understanding of what this involves.

In advancing this programme I do not claim that all workers must accept it before they can win important struggles. The book does not claim that, for example, all the nurses in 1999 had to become socialist to win their strike. I said that “it does mean that workers really do have to grasp the necessity for them to take control of their own struggles...” Maeve claims that “It should go without saying that socialists confront the totality of the partnership project, and oppose it as such. Otherwise we more or less concede defeat before we’ve started...” But why is this only true of socialists, and not of workers as a whole?

Of course, the debate around political organisation versus spontaneity is an old and recurring one, and it can be easy to caricature a debating opponent with having a one-sided appreciation of the questions posed. This is easily done if quotes are taken out of context, which unfortunately Maeve does. Thus, when I said the only alternative was “one where the whole system of production is geared towards workers needs”, it was in the context of a model put forward by the ATGWU which posited one of coresponsibility. She says that the book shows “little comprehension of how the socialist alternative arises from that everyday conflict”, but does not explain it herself except to say that “One grows over to the other, if socialists do their job right.” Such a scenario looks very like one she appears to dislike: a “self-selecting vanguard importing socialist politics into the working class.”

By definition, socialists are self-selecting, in the sense that one can only be a socialist by virtue of an understanding of socialist politics. We know something of socialist politics because what we have learned to a great extent comes from lessons we have been taught by other workers, in the past and in other countries. To minimise the importance of these lessons is thus to devalue the experiences of these workers in the name of hailing those of today. Most of these lessons are not going to be learned in “everyday” trade union struggle, but in struggles that go way beyond them to decidedly un-everyday struggles. What the great leaders of the Marxist movement claimed was that workers will be won to socialism primarily through building a mass socialist party. It is simply wrong to believe that this must first go through everyday struggles in the trade union movement.

The important question that the book takes up is the position of the trade union bureaucracy. Maeve disagrees with the book’s argument that the trade union bureaucracy is a “pillar of capitalist society” and that it has gone “over to the capitalists wholesale”. She writes: “Rightly stressing the interests that lead the union bureaucracy away from the interests of workers, he forgets the counterpressures that can pull them back towards us.... Lumping them in with the ruling class.., would... wrongfoot us all when the bureaucrats do come out with radical talk and deeds.” Let’s leave aside the view that militant workers’ action that put enough pressure on the bureaucracy to move would also want, not only to remove and replace it, but also minimise the possibility of a new bureaucratic elite arising. There are more fundamental objections to Maeve’s arguments.

The labour bureaucracy, in both its political and industrial arms, in its social democratic and Stalinist forms, went over to the capitalist class wholesale a long time ago. Their crimes could fill this entire issue of Red Banner and of every issue before it. The politics of the labour and trade union bureaucracy is irredeemably capitalist, and it is amazing that Maeve declares otherwise. When it comes to a clash of interests and pressure, real material interests will always be decisive. These interests are decisively anti-socialist, because the inequality bureaucrats enjoy is incompatible with socialism. The power that they enjoy is incompatible with socialism, and the function they play of helping regulate the sale of labour power on the capitalist market would disappear under socialism. They oppose socialism because they would not exist under it. Failure to appreciate the nature of the trade union bureaucracy is one reason why workers have failed to build rank and file structures. If they can be pressurised, as Maeve believes, then there is no necessity for rank and file control. It is therefore Maeve’s view that leads to radical talk (and even the very occasional deed) wrongfooting workers, for at the end of the day they make these noises only as part of a strategy to defend their own interests.

The second aspect of the limits of trade unionism is revealed in my criticisms of free collective bargaining and of Maeve’s defence of it. First I should explain that I do not say that free collective bargaining instead of partnership deals would be “a victory for the bureaucracy” as Maeve claims. I say that “The flat opposition of free collective bargaining to social partnership weakened the opposition to partnership and represented a victory by the bureaucracy which placed only this choice before workers and left all the political questions to the preserve of the ICTU leadership.” In other words there is a real political alternative to partnership which free collective bargaining does not match. Of free collective bargaining I say that “socialists could not disagree with workers taking advantage of relatively profitable conditions to advance their claims”.

On the same page (page 39) that these quotes are taken from, I pointed out that free collective bargaining witnessed a fall in workers’ living standards during the l980s. Supporters of it point out that this occurred only because there was a capitalist recession during the decade, but this just reveals in its own way a continuing subordination of workers’ interests to capitalist profitability. It is in this sense that I stated that free collective bargaining was not an alternative to partnership. It does not offer a class-wide strategy because it leaves each group of workers to their own devices. It is no alternative because the same bureaucracy is still in charge of the movement. By definition, a united working class movement armed with political demands is excluded from such a strategy, yet it is just such a politicisation that is required to advance workers’ consciousness, as Marx demanded, in order to ready workers for a revolutionary project.

Maeve criticises this strategy because it seems to require that “the entire working class line up together and move forward as one with no unevenness at all, but posing that as the only alternative is a recipe for a long and fruitless wait”. Once again, I am criticised for an “all or nothing’ strategy” that does not exist. Once again, nowhere do I say that workers must wait until everyone is united in a political movement. I don’t advocate waiting, because I do understand that the working class has uneven consciousness and that, therefore, a vanguard will arise that will have a higher level of consciousness than that generally existing in the class, and which must fight for the whole class to adopt a political approach. The demand for workers’ unity is therefore not an empty slogan but a political demand for unity that free collective bargaining, the quintessential trade union strategy, does not encompass. It may be objected that this alternative is not on the foreseeable agenda, but this is only a measurement of the distance to be travelled and the scale of the obstacles to be overcome. The same objection could be made of any Marxist belief in socialism.

A Footnote
By D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

Note to Maeve Connaughton (‘Dissolving the partnership’, Red Banner 14):

“today’s union bureaucrats are less confused than their predecessors only in their lack of any socialist perspective for their time. For them, their organisation (and the greatly enhanced lifestyle that it gives them) comes first, even against the interests of the membership. Any of their number who seem likely to disturb this will be cast out by them, as with John Mitchell in the l980s or Mick O’Reilly today. Accordingly, though socialists can work with such people on specific issues, their participation in the overall struggle will prove more of a handicap than a help. That is why we oppose them.” 

Note from D.R. O’Connor Lysaght in a review of a Jim Larkin Biography


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